One year ago, Ted Hawkins was a busker on the Venice Beach boardwalk, a man literally singing for his supper.
At age 49, with much of his life spent on the road and inside prison walls, he'd accrued lots of experience for the part.
"I looked upon myself as an outcast," admits Hawkins. "I'd said to myself, 'Well, this is it. I tried and tried and couldn't make it. So I'm gonna sit right here and sing until I die.' "
Today, Ted Hawkins lives in England, where he is widely regarded as a hero. He's been the subject of several newspaper and magazine profiles. Critics regularly draw comparisons between Hawkins and his hero, the late Sam Cooke.
"On the Boardwalk at Venice Beach," an album of the soul and country standards Hawkins crooned each weekend there, has been bobbing in the upper realms of Britain's independent charts for seven months. Hawkins is currently in the midst of a European concert tour, for which he'll make more money per show than he used to earn in a week of Venice Sundays.
Hawkins is a spiritual man. But when he says, "It seems like I've died and been born again," he's not just talking about religion.
Indeed, his story has all the elements of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie--or for that matter, of a Ted Hawkins song.
Its cast of characters includes sadistic prison guards, sleazy record execs, a loyal wife and a boyish manager who helped keep Hawkins' dreams alive. And it stars a singer whose voice, ranging from a formidable growl to heart-rending falsetto, communicates all the beauty and the ravages of that life.
"I'm just knocked out by the respect I get here," Hawkins enthused, his gritty baritone a commanding presence even by transatlantic phone.
If his life has suddenly taken on the trappings of a fairy tale, however, the protagonist still has one wish.
"I do hope that America finds me," he said. "Because until they do, I feel like I'm nothing. I guess I'm still driven in that way. . . .
"But when they find out how many times I've been to jail, and how I came up as a child . . . you know, people like colors and what's pretty. My life has been very ugly."
He grew up in Lakeshore, Miss., the son, he says, of "a foul-mouthed prostitute" and a father he never knew. "They used to call me Dirty Junior when I was young," he said. "As far back as I can remember I had to fend for myself."
Hawkins traces his musical career to a stay at a reform school.
"I heard a song called 'Peace in the Valley' by Red Foley, and it made me want to cry," he said.
"And I enjoyed that feeling. You know, when you listen to a sad song and the tears start to fall--man, that's when you're feeling good! I wanted to capture that feeling for myself, so I started to sing."
His efforts caught the ear of the school superintendent's wife, who gave Hawkins voice lessons and arranged an appearance for him at a talent show in Jackson.
"I froze behind the curtain," he recalled. "But she gave me a push. So I walked out and started singing, and I tore the house down. And I've been tearing the house down ever since."
Well, not exactly. At 15, a minor theft earned Hawkins a three-year hitch in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. "The man over us was a sadist," Hawkins recalls, "and he got his sexual gratification by whipping black butts. . . . He was mad at me because I wouldn't holler, so he almost beat me to death."
Upon his release, Hawkins began years of aimless wandering. He soon became expert on the relative comforts of skid rows in Philadelphia, New York and Buffalo.
Hawkins never lost his dream about making it as a singer, however, and eventually made it to California. "It seemed like I'd landed in the Garden of Eden," he said of his arrival in Los Angeles in 1966. Soon after, Hawkins approached Alexander Scott, Sam Cooke's manager, who advised the would-be singer to write his own material.
"I told him, 'I can't write,' " Hawkins remembered, "and he said, 'You don't know what you can do. Get yourself a recorder and put words to the tune.' " Following his advice, Hawkins composed "Baby," which became a regional hit on the Dolphin Records label.
Elizabeth Hawkins, who'd met her future husband during this period, described it as "an exciting time. I thought this could be his career--he was such a dynamic singer and personality. But we ran into people who gave us a lot of hard times and broken promises. I know that hurt him tremendously. He's always been very innocent about a lot of things."
For Hawkins, a sensitive man, such frustrations took their toll. Further attempts to advance his career were interrupted by intermittent jail terms, usually associated with theft charges, and culminated in what he terms a nervous breakdown.
"I don't remember all the things I did anymore," Hawkins says, "I just know I wound up screaming and hollering in (the state mental facility at) Vacaville. I guess I must have lost my mind a little bit there."
But Hawkins also has the soul of a survivor, and he used the solitude of prison to write more songs.